Few wine terroirs are as fascinating as Mount Etna on the southern Italian island of Sicily.
To start with, at 3,350m Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, and one of the most active ones worldwide. It has several eruption centres, and intense seismic activity as well as frequent lava flows. These have been threatening human settlements on its slopes for thousands of years, but have also contributed to an exceptionally variegated soil.
Rock, water, air and fire have created a unique environment on Etna, which has inspired awe in visitors for millennia, and which has been awarded UNESCO listed World Heritage Site status in 2013.
Wine has been made on Etna for over 3,000 years, but in the 20thcentury. However, in the wake of Italy’s industrialization, most of its old terraced vineyards, with their high production costs, low yields and limited mechanization opportunities, were abandoned.
Etna thus holds an unusually high number of old vines. Many of them are well over hundred years old and survived the worldwide vineyard devastations caused by the phylloxera bug in the 19th century. Because of its sandy, well-drained soils of volcanic rock and ashes, Etna is one of the few places in Europe where phylloxera did not take hold. Pre-phylloxera wines are of great historical significance and offer a glimpse into an otherwise long-gone past. Palmento Costanzo’s Nero di Sei (which we offer below at a special price) is a precious opportunity to taste one of them.
It is only in the 1990s that a new generation of visionaries took over these old abandoned vineyards and revitalized the region through a meticulous study of vines, terroirs and traditional winemaking. Within just a few years, Etna wines became one of the wine world’s hottest trends. Development in the region continues, as soils, microclimates and their effects on vine growth are increasingly better understood.
The most interesting indigenous variety to be found on Etna, however, is undoubtedly the Nerello Mascalese. Pale crimson-purple in color, it reminds us of Pinot Noir, as does its strong reactivity to terroir variation (something it also shares with northern Nebbiolo). The Etna Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese, with the possible addition of Nerello Cappuccio, which is darker in color and lower in tannin. The wine is aged for a minimum of four years before release, of which at least one in wood. Nerello wines are intense, with vibrant acidity, muscular yet velvety tannins and a distinctive minerality; they are very perfumed, with aromas of sour cherries, wild strawberries, and notes of dried herbs, tobacco, as well as mushrooms with age.
How to best pair these wines with food? They are elegant, but also quite intense, and require rather strongly flavoured food, ideally with some umami component to match their ‘rockiness’. Sicilian cuisine, with its focus on the fresh, unadulterated flavors of the sea surrounding the island and of the mountains at its centre, is a perfect and natural match. But more generally Mediterranean vegetable, mushroom or fish dishes, pastas and hard cheeses all also work very well. For Asian cuisine, think of more flavoursome dishes you would otherwise pair with Pinot Noir, like roasted duck, mutton pot or char siew.
Palmento Costanzo is one of Etna’s up-and-coming, most representative producers.
Their ten hectares of vineyards are near the village of Passopisciaro, Contrada Santo Spirito, on the north flank of Etna, at an altitude between 650 and 780m – an excellent location at what is considered the optimal altitude bracket. Vines are planted on centuries-old terraces supported by small supporting walls (muretti a secco) built with lava rocks and are farmed organically. There are still pre-phylloxera vines in the typical free-standing alberello shape.